This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
Update late 2018: After a re-watch, I’m not entirely satisfied with my original, college-age review. (Would that I ever was?). In particular, I find my more nihilistic reading of Dead Man to be hopelessly mired in my youth. In its interplay of shaken signifiers and layered meanings, Jarmusch’s film is never nihilistic. If it reduces the Western to a pageant, it also animates new possibilities for pageantry, retexturing the Western as a kind of poetry as Emersonian as it is Derridean, as open to reconnecting with space and nature as it is exposing its inabilities to do so. The film thrives on an immanent tension, and would that more films followed suit.
After all, if this film re-reads all films as lies, is not Dead Man part of that great filmic canard as well? Dead Man is not “truth”, nor does it want to be. It’s a self-reflexive, filmic op-ed piece, overstated for pure effect. In its untethering from reality, it associatively overlays, blurs, and emulsifies various images and sounds together in new, unexpected ways, shattering pre-established truths and restitching them with an eye not for their cohesion but their imaginative associations, for the spaces in between them, for the breakages and fractures which expose the stitching of reality and the potential for reorganizing sound, space, and mind to new ends. A lyrical expression of the Western as out-of-body experience, it not only critiques the genre; it breaks it, and resurrects it as something anew. What it ultimately imagines is not anti-Western, really, but a new, hopefully prognostic breed of cinema, one not only interested in excoriating the Western myth but also in conjuring a new, more mutable one, a vision of the Western as self-critical, poetic play. I’ll keep the original review up for posterity’s sake, but read at your own risk!
Original Review (Edited mid-2015):
Dead Man is a revisionist Western, sure, but there have been many great revisionist Westerns (look to Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven from three years before-hand for ample evidence). There certainly have not, however, been many movies like Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s attempt at creating not a gritty non-myth but an anti-myth – and it’s a marvel of marrying acidic form to acerbic content. This is not only a revisionist Western, but an anti-revisionist Western, an anti-Western, even an anti-film. Continue reading